I talked in my post about my regrets of the last decade about games I had yet to start. Return of the Obra Dinn was one of them. I wanted to start 2020 in a good way, so I played the game on my Nintendo Switch. I had the best five hours with a videogame in a long time.
I loved Papers, Please!, also made by Lucas Pope, and in Return of the Obra Dinn he shows again his skills as a great game designer.
I decided to review Return of the Obra Dinn first because, as a mystery novels fan, I was waiting for a game like this in a long time. And I must say that this review may not be completely unbiased. I didn’t manage to put two different ratings, so I decided to stick with one as unbiased as possible. I will put on the site something that will make you find my favorite games in the easiest way possible.
A Ship, a Pocket Watch and a List of People
Our silent protagonist is an insurance adjuster who works for East India Company entrusted with the task of determining the fates of the people aboard the Obra Dinn. The ship went missing in 1803 and reappeared in 1807 with all the crew dead or missing.
The only things that will help us are the list of the crew and the passengers (60 people!) and a magic watch (called Memento Mortem) that, near a corpse, will let us watch their last moments of life (which we will see as a still image after hearing some words and noises). Then we have to determine who the corpse is, how they died and, if their death was no accident or misfortune, who killed them. We report everything in a diary (and we can make changes afterwards), where we can find pictures of the crew and blueprints of the ship.
Some death memories will trigger after or even inside another memory: the pocket watch will let us know and will guide us to the next one.
Sometimes we won’t have enough elements to confirm a corpse’s identity, so we will have to make guesses and try to go for exclusion with circumstantial evidence. Other times the cause of death will not be that obvious, also due to the art style chosen for the game. Fortunately, after three fates correctly guessed, the game will let us know that we are going the right direction.
We can leave the Obra Dinn whenever we desire: if we leave the ship without solving all the fates, the person who entrusted us with the pocket watch will let us know its disappointment and we will end our experience without having the full picture. After this bitter ending, we can go back on our last moments on the Obra Dinn and keep going with the investigation.
If we solve all fates correctly we will gain access to some death memories that we could not see on the ship. In fact the game is divided into chapters, and Chapter 8 will only be available if we solve the other fates.
The great thing about Return of the Obra Dinn is that you have to actually investigate to find out the truth. The game does not give you suggestions if you are stuck in solving some identities (unlike many graphic adventures that will help the player with hints). Every progress you make is only thanks to your own deduction skills and that is what makes the game so unique.
A Dive into the Past
The art style is pretty peculiar. It’s all pixelated and realized with only two colors (there are different palettes based on old computers, like the Commodore 1084 and the IBM 5151). It gives Return of the Obra Dinn a pleasant and unique charm that will make it unforgettable.
Because of the art syle, like I said before, it can be difficult to determine the death of some members of the crew, but it’s not impossible to find out after watching the scenes a bit more. I also had a few problems in my first half-hour of playthrough: I felt a bit sick while moving on the ship, and I think this is more a personal issue than a problem per se.
An excellent job was made with the dubbing of the title: all voices were on point and helped enter in the atmosphere of the game. We hear them only when we arrive near the Obra Dinn and when we trigger a death memory with the Memento Mortem, and the things we hear may help us identify the victims.
About the Nintendo Switch version
I played Return of the Obra Dinn on my Nintendo Switch and it ran really smoothly during my entire playthrough. I played both in handheld and TV mode and I never encountered any problem. I think I’ll buy the game on PC too, but I think that the Nintendo Switch version is the best one you could get. The possibility to play it outside and being satisfied even with small sessions of gaming is a great feature for a game like this.
I should have played it sooner
Return of the Obra Dinn really is a marvelous game. My only regret is that I should have played it sooner instead of waiting more than a year since it first release. The possibility to really investigate on my own without hints is something that I never had in a videogame. Lucas Pope again did an amazing job creating an experience simply unique.
I have to say that I’m happy to have bought the Switch version: it’s a well done porting and playing the game on handheld mode was a good experience.